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Rapid Rural Appraisal: Implications for Community Action Programs in Rural Societies
Charles W. Jarrett, Ph. D. Department of Sociology Ohio University Southern Campus
David M. Lucas, Ph. D. Dept. of Interpersonal Communication Ohio University Southern Campus
Abstract Principles of rural sociology, interpersonal communication, and international studies were applied during an undergraduate research project in rural Mexico. Under the supervision of faculty from Ohio University and the Institute of Technology of Monterrey (ITESM), undergraduates from the United States and Mexico learned to apply principles of qualitative research in an international setting. Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), a qualitative methodology appropriate for multi-disciplinary research, was applied to determine the attitudes of rural people regarding social, political, and economic issues. Data were collected in the summer of 1999 from one hundred seventy-five (175) families residing in General Cepeda, Coahuila, Mexico. Findings revealed local residents were concerned with high incidences of unemployment, extreme conditions of poverty, lack of educational opportunities for youth, and an increasing problem of alcoholism in the community. Residents expressed a high degree of fear and suspicion relative to the support of governmental institutions. Findings suggest rapid rural appraisal may have implications for community action programs in rural societies.
Introduction From June 13-24, 1999, Ohio University Southern Campus faculty and students were part of an international field experience in rural Mexico. Organized with the cooperation of faculty from the Institute of Technology of Monterrey (ITESM), Saltillo Campus, undergraduate students from the United States and Mexico engaged in a qualitative research project near the field site of
General Cepeda, Coahuila, Mexico. In June of 1999, the state of Coahuila, Mexico, was experiencing economic prosperity directly related to the previously ratified North American Free Trade Agreement (Beltran 1999; Reuters 2000; Siller 1998). An expanding industrial presence had energized the national economy, with corporations like General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Chrysler, and John Deere establishing business and manufacturing opportunities in Mexico (Beltran 1999; Reuters 2000; Siller 1998). Coahuila, Mexico s third largest state, possessed a highly developed industrial infrastructure and a quality work force (Beltran 1999; Echeverria 2000). Saltillo, a major metropolitan center located in the mountains of Coahuila, was positively affected by the recent economic trends. Located about an hour from the financial center of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Saltillo boasted an urban population of over six hundred thousand (600,000) people, with an economy featuring unemployment rates at an all time low of 2.9% (Echeverria 2000; Reuters 1999; Siller 1998). Located fifty (50) miles from Saltillo in the same state of Coahuila, Mexico, the village of General Cepeda (pronounced Hen-er-al Say-pay-da) appeared relatively unaffected by recent economic improvements in the region. Although two main roads lead to the village and intersect there, General Cepeda remained a rural, isolated village composed of mostly disenfranchised people experiencing high rates of unemployment, rates approaching 35% according to government sources (Beltran 1999; Echeverria 2000; Reuters 1999; Siller 1998).
The socio-economic inequalities between Saltillo and neighboring General Cepeda were apparent to observers. Although data existed on the attitudes and perceptions of people living in urban centers like Saltillo, there was less research on the attitudes and perceptions of rural people living in the state of Coahuila, Mexico (Beltran 1999). Faculty from Ohio University and the Institute of Technology of Monterrey (ITESM), Saltillo Campus, collaborated in the development of a research project appropriate for teaching undergraduates principles of qualitative research. Rapid rural appraisal, a qualitative methodology used in rural settings, was applied to assess the attitudes of people living in General Cepeda regarding social, political, and economic issues. Defining Rapid Rural Appraisal Rapid rural appraisal has become increasingly important for research in rural regions where more rigorous, quantitative analysis may not be practical due to the constraints of time and funding (Chambers 1992; Dunn 1994; Khon Kaen 1985; Kumar 1990). A measure of frustration may exist with structured questionnaires and quantitative surveys, methods more time consuming, complicated, and difficult to process in the field. Rapid rural appraisal provides quick and efficient identification of local issues, and it offers an insightful framework for supplementing conventional methods of research in rural settings (Chambers 1992; Dunn 1994; Farrington and Martin 1988; Kumar 1990; Kumar and Casley 1993). Rapid rural appraisal (RRA) has no strict set of methodological procedures; however, several distinctive features have emerged from the research (Chambers 1992; Conway 1987; Dunn 1994, Ison and Ampt 1992;
Khon Kaen 1985). 1) (RRA) features a commitment to multi-disciplinary research A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from diverse disciplines should be recruited to provide a wide range of perspectives and perceptions through which data can be interpreted and analyzed (Chambers 1992; Conway 1987; Dunn 1994 ; Ison and Ampt 1992). 2) (RRA) features a commitment to team training Team training is considered a crucial step for achieving consistent approaches to data collection, and it may include training team members in techniques of semi-structured interviewing, active listening, structured observation, and the formulation of research objectives (Chambers 1992; Conway 1987; Dunn 1994). 3) (RRA) features a commitment to project protocol Project protocal specifies a method of introducing team members to local residents and provides a research design for the systematic implementation of research objectives ( Chambers 1992; Dunn 1994; Ison and Ampt 1992). 4) (RRA) features a commitment to adapting methodologies Rapid rural appraisal requires a certain degree of adaptation to particular resources and local situations that may be unique to the cultural context of field experiences (Chambers 1992; Dunn 1994). 5) (RRA) features a commitment to qualitative data Qualitative refers to the descriptive type of data collected and the quality of observations made by a team of researchers combining their perceptions of local cultures with rapid surveys of native attitudes, practices, and concerns (Chambers 1992; Dunn 1994).
Rapid rural appraisal developed from two entirely different intellectual traditions, each with differing perspectives on the nature and style of social research (Kumar 1990; Kumar and Casley 1993). One paradigm, developed by social phenomenologalists, questions the premise that objective reality can be determined via scientific inquiry. Its proponents view social phenomena as constituting not one, but a set of multiple realities requiring subjective methods of inquiry (Kumar 1990). A second paradigm, developed by logical positivists, offers the premise that a social phenomenon exists not only in the minds of individuals, but also as an objective social reality. The fact that a social phenomenon may be viewed differently by individuals does not negate its existence, nor the application of scientific principles as a valid means of investigation (Kumar 1990; Kumar and Casley 1993). The methods of rapid rural appraisal seem to lie between the two extremes of phenomenology and logical positivism (Kumar 1990; Kumar and Casley 1993). Investigators using (RRA) are encouraged to interact with one another, and local residents, while describing the subjective opinions, concerns, perspectives, and attitudes of people living in a particular cultural context. At the same time, investigators using (RRA) must have sufficient grounding in established methods of formal data collection and training in the rigorous procedures of scientific inquiry (Kumar 1990; Kumar and Casley 1993).
Criteria for Selecting Rapid Rural Appraisal Rapid rural arppraisal offered several unique characteristics that set it apart from other qualitative methodologies. First, (RRA) is an appropriate
heuristic device for teaching undergraduates the principles of qualitative research in a relatively short period of time. As a pedagogical exercise, students learned a quick and efficient method of assessing the attitudes, perceptions, and concerns of residents in a particular locale. Secondly, (RRA) has been proven a particularly effective method for assessing the attitudes of residents in rural locales, isolated environments, and developmental regions (Dunn 1994; Chambers 1992; Farrington and Martin 1988; Khon Kaen 1985). Third, (RRA) avoids classification as a superficial research effort representing developmental tourism, or a misdirected foray into the field under the label of qualitative research. Rapid rural appraisal is a qualitative methodology with an international reputation for rigorous and systematic principles of data collection (Dunn 1994; Conway 1987; Chambers 1992; Farrington and Martin 1988). Fourth, (RRA) is known for recognizing the value of local knowledge and the importance of native perspectives. Learning takes place in the field, relying on the knowledge expressed by local people, rather than information extracted through problem solving investigations, or quasi-experimental models (Conway 1987; Chambers 1992; Dunn 1994; Farrington and Martin 1988; Khon Kaen 1985; Ison and Ampt 1992).
Applying Rapid Rural Appraisal in General Cepeda, Coahulia, Mexico Chambers (1992), Conway (1987), and Dunn (1994) and Kumar (1990) argue a multi-disciplinary research team should be recruited to provide a wide range of perspectives for the interpretation of data. Faculty representing the disciplines of sociology, interpersonal communication, international studies,
and media instruction worked in a collaborative effort to implement the project. A multi-disciplinary team of undergraduates representing majors in education, interpersonal communication, engineering, law, criminal justice, marketing, business, and human geography were selected for inclusion in the project. The Ohio University Regional Campus System, through the Office of the Vice Provost for Rgional Higher Education, provided funding to partially supplement the costs of student travel. A rigorous set of procedures and guidelines were established for the selection of students. Prior to their acceptance, students were required to submit a written essay stating their reasons for wishing to participate, perceptions of what could be learned, and how students would contribute to the development of an effective research team. Student applications were evaluated by faculty members and fourteen (14) Ohio University students were selected for participation. Saltillo faculty administered similar guidelines and selected a matching number of fourteen (14) Mexican students. A virtual classroom was established to facilitate academic preparations
for students of both cultures. Communications via e-mail correspondence, net meeting capabilities, and electronic document transactions helped establish relationships among students prior to departure for Mexico. Students were required to read articles on qualitative research, techniques of rapid rural appraisal, observational analysis, content analysis, triangulation of data, semistructured interviewing, and principles of interpersonal communication. Faculty arranged two meetings via compressed video to review research objectives and plan dates and times for departure.
Sunday, June 13, 1999 The United States contingency departed for Mexico on Sunday, June 13, 1999, from the airport in Cincinnati, Ohio. Arriving later that day in Monterrey, Neuva Leon, Mexico, the American contingency was shuttled by bus to Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. The Saltillo Campus is located some fifty (50) miles from the field site of General Cepeda, Coahuila, Mexico. The Saltillo Campus would serve as a base of operations for a four day, intensive period of student training. Principles of qualitative research and techniques of rapid rural appraisal were reviewed and practiced by students from both cultures. Descriptive information about General Cepeda was presented to acclimate students to the field site.
June 14 - 17, 1999 On Monday, June 14, 1999, faculty began training students for the field experience. Power point presentations, overhead projections, video and film clips of the village, maps of the village, illustrations of landmarks, residential maps showing the physical proximity of streets, and an historical perspective of General Cepeda were methods used by faculty to acclimate students with the field site. Chambers (1992), Conway (1987), and Dunn (1994) argue team training is an important feature of rapid rural appraisal, a component crucial for achieving consistent approaches to data collection and analysis in the field. Research teams were formed by pairing Mexican students with American students. Practice runs were conducted so students from both cultures would become familiar with one another and the plan of research. Mexican students assumed
the role of guides and translators for American students, making the initial training period an interesting laboratory for cross cultural acclimation.
Friday, June 18, 1999 On Friday, June 18, 1999, faculty and students moved to a hotel in General Cepeda. Faculty converted the hotel salon into a base of operations where faculty and undergraduates could interact, an academic laboratory to assist in the completion of research objectives. Plans for the next morning included strategy sessions and the deliniation of interview schedules. Using marker boards, General Cepeda was geographically divided into six (6) residential sectors, each sector being labeled with an English capital letter. Students were divided into six (6) research teams, labeled (A) through (F), and charged with the task of interviewing residents in every home of the village. Research teams successfully interviewed one hundred seventy-five (175) residents in five (5) days, with only residents over the age of sixteen (16) considered eligible for interview.
June 19 - 23, 1999 On Saturday, June 19, 1999, field operations were initiated in accordance with project protocol. Chambers (1992) and Dunn (1994) insist rapid rural
appraisal is commited to a notion of project protocal, a method of introducing team members to local residents and a plan for the systematic collection of data.
Under the direction of Mexican sociologist, Senora Rosa Ester Beltran, Mexican students were assigned to initiate encounters with local residents by asking permission for an interview. With permission by residents, interviews were recorded on either audio cassettes, or video tapes. After each interview, team members were responsible for writing immediate post-appraisal narratives. Project protocol required conversations to begin with a short statisical survey designed to obtain demographic data on residents. The statistical component of investigation was designed to last only a few minutes, and provided an introduction that was non-threatening, yet meaningful. The role of information gatherers provided students a legitimate reason for engaging in the interview process. The use of a survey implied an assembly of insights rather than a collection of statistics, an inference that data was being gathered from people in the field and filtered through the perceptions of researchers. During morning hours, students conducted interviews with residents of General Cepeda. At 12:00 noon daily, students returned to the academic laboratory for lunch, followed by debriefing sessions to discuss problems encountered in the field. Sessions included a faculty assessment of the physical and emotional well-being of students, discussion of sampling procedures and consistency of data collection, and an evaluation of the possible need for methodological adatations in the field. Chambers (1992), Dunn (1994), and Kumar (1990) suggest rapid rural appraisal features a commitment to adapting methodologies, a degree of
adaptation reflecting the unique cultural context of the field experience. Kumar and Casley (1993) suggest at least five (5) different interview techniques may be
adapted for the collection of data:
1) key informant interviews
- residents selected on the basis of specialized knowledge and expertise - residents discuss a specific topic among themselves in a group context - residents engage investigators using the format of a public meeting
2) focus group interviews
3) community interviews
4) structured direct observation - investigators gather social/physical data using well designed observation forms 5) informal surveys - residents answer open-ended questions that allow for subjective responses
Students used the adaptive methodologies offered by Kumar and Casley (1993), except for the focus group interview. Students used key informant interviews to assess the opinions of village leaders and elected public officials. Structured direct observation was used to assess interaction in public places, businesses, churches, government buildings, a town square, and several local ceremonies including a public wedding. Students took advantage of a local town meeting (for women only) to administer a community interview. Invitations to join residents during evening dinners and informal social gatherings provided students a chance for administering informal surveys. Opportunities of this nature were considered examples of artistic ethnography, defined in the literature as ritual performances expressing
regular, occurring performances of culture and life that may be transmitted to researchers by means of verbal and nonverbal communication (Bormann 1983;
Pacanowsky and O Donnell-Trujillo 1982; Phillipsen 1995). Faculty felt these types of community interactions were worthy of investigation, for they offered students symbolic meaning to the cultural identity and cultural boundaries of local residents. During afternoon hours, students returned to the field for the collection of qualitative data. Chambers (1992) and Dunn (1994) suggest rapid rural appraisal is committed to the collection of qualitative data. Students were
taught that the term sampling meant sampling a wide range of experiences (but not necessarily in a statistical, or representative sense) until patterns of understanding begin to emerge. Students were taught the term methodology meant a rigorous process of research adhered to in the field, a refined set of principles requiring knowledge and skill applied during the collection of data (Dunn 1994; Chambers 1992; Conway 1986; Khon Kaen 1985). During evening hours, further debriefing sessions were mandatory for students of both cultures. At the end of each day, faculty and students would look forward to sharing their perceptions and observations. Undergraduates synthesized information using computer technologies in the field. Students from both cultures used lap top computers to summarize interviews and prepare written narratives about their perceptions and impressions. Students posted written comments about field experiences, along with still-shot, video, and digital camera photos, on a previously designated web-site through the home page of Ohio University. Family members, faculty colleagues, and interested parties from both institutions of higher learning followed the daily web-site with great enthusiasm. Field work was completed Wednesday, June 23, 1999.
Thursday, June 24, 1999 On Thursday, June 24, 1999, the American contingency departed Mexico from the airport in Monterrey, Nueva Leon. In the succeeding weeks, Mexican and American students used technologies including net meeting capabilities, compressed video meetings, and e-mail correspondence to communicate and organize research findings under faculty supervision. After completion of project requirements, students from both cultures were required to evaluate the experience. Students agreed the experience of being selected for participation enhanced learning skills with respect to cultural diversity, communication, interpersonal dynamics, and the application of qualitative research techniques. Of particular interest, students stated they learned from the curricula, the culture, and from one another as peers in a multi-disciplinary research project.
Conclusions This project provided undergraduates a practicum of learning experiences that may prove extremely helpful in the future, particularly for students engaging in international research after graduation. The project required students to vigorously apply a synthesis of academic skills including writing, oral communication, interviewing techniques, technical expertise, analytical and critical thinking, and principles of interpersonal communication. American students unanimously agreed the act of being emersed in a foreign culture was
an enlightening experience. Mexican students and American students agreed the experience of team building and peer learning contributed greatly to their satisfaction with the project. The establishment of linkages between Mexican and American students has continued to persist via e-mail correspondence and electronic transaction, indicating students from both cultures have formed lasting relationships as a result of participating in the project. One important issue raised by this project involves the implications of applying rapid rural appraisal to assist rural policy makers. The value of rapid rural appraisal as a method for impacting community action programs remains problematic. If the primary purpose of an investigation is to make major policy decisions, or programmatic choices for improving the quality of life in rural locales, there still exists a need for employing positivistic research methods yielding precise and scientifically valid information. On the other hand, if the purpose of an investigation is to make a simple assessment of current programs (i.e., the perceived successes and failures of community action programs from the view of local residents), rapid rural appraisal provides an efficient and cost effective method of assessment. Kumar and Casley (1993) argue rapid rural appraisal is particularly appropriate when 1) descriptive information seems sufficient for decision-making; 2) when an understanding of the motivations and attitudes of target populations become problematic; or 3) when available quantitative data must be interpretated for resolving inconsistencies and/or deriving meaningful conclusions. The findings of this study yield observations that should be of concern for rural policy advisors in the state of Coahuila, Mexico. The findings suggest
residents were concerned with the socio-economic problems impacting their daily existence. Residents indicated the lack of educational opportunities, both public or private institutions, constituted a major problem. Residents were convinced education would give their children better discipline, a brighter future, and better opportunities for employment. Increasing unemployment in the village was perceived by residents as a very serious problem. Residents expressed concern over a lack of programs to reduce poverty in the region and indicated unemployment led to other social ills including crime, alcoholism, and apathy. Finally, residents expressed a general distrust of governmental institutions at the federal, state, and local levels. Residents expressed the opinion their lives were marginalized, with little opportunity for changes to occur through existing community action programs. Researchers left General Cepeda with the impression that residents wanted more effective community action programs, especially programs designed to improve living standards, educate the populace, and increase employment opportunities in the village. Residents indicated the need for governmental support to reduce social problems like alcoholism, drug abuse, and apathy among unemployed villagers. The authors suggest similar studies should be conducted in rural areas of Coahuila, Mexico, to establish some measure of longitudinal data for evaluating local attitudes of community action programs in the state. The implications of rapid rural appraisal for community action programs may seem more relevant to policy makers if consistent patterns of concern emerge over time. Rapid rural appraisal could be a quick and inexpensive method for
evaluating the effectiveness of community action programs in the region. What implications would rapid rural appraisal have for community action programs in rural societies? Gillispie and Sinclair (2000) reflect on the future of qualitative research in rural studies by suggesting good qualitative research must 1) be sociologically informative; 2) be based on empirical observation; 3) be self-reflexive and detached; and 4) be held to high ethical standards. The authors concur with this assessment and consider rapid rural appraisal a research methodology worthy of continued application in rural environments. This research project represents the first of several cooperative ventures between Ohio University and the Institute of Technology of Monterrey (ITESM), Saltillo Campus. During the years 2000 - 2003, the authors plan to conduct similar studies of the attitudes and perceptions of people living in rural regions of Coahuila, Mexico. Publication of future studies may provide rural policy makers with alternative, cost effective, and valuable sources of descriptive information from a rural populace concerned with the improvement of existing community action programs.
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